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Breaking Bad (2008) (TV)

Reviewed on 2011 October 14

When I first heard about the premise of this show, I was actually kind of offended. A high school teacher making crystal meth? Wreaking havoc? And it’s supposed to be funny? What’s wrong with you, Vince Gilligan? And then I watched the first episode and was smitten with it. For one thing, even though parts of it are incredibly, darkly funny, it doesn’t glamorize the stuff or any of its attendant lifestyle at all. If anything it does just the opposite. For one thing, the faces of some of the users at the “Crystal Palace” would make a sane person nervous abut taking a cold tablet.

The other thing that pulled me in is the brilliant writing. These are some of the best characters I’ve seen on either the big or small screen. I’ll break it down season by season; if you’re not caught up yet, don’t read.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a high school teacher who was dealt some poor hands in life and maybe played some others poorly; there are some parts of his past that aren’t too clear. We learn that he was part of a brilliant chemistry team and his former partner is now rich and happily married to his old flame. Walt lives in a modest house and teaches brats for a living, and the brats drive better cars than him to school. He has a son (RJ Mitte) he loves very much and who had cerebral palsy, and he is an amazing kid but no parent wants to see their child have to endure that kind of thing. His overbearing wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) loves them both but wears the pants in the family, doing things like giving Walt veggie bacon on his fiftieth birthday when the poor sot would love a bit of the real thing. We can initially cut her some slack, because she’s pregnant with an unplanned-for child. She will be loved, spoiled, and one more mouth to feed.

As if this wasn’t enough to deal with, Walt collapses at his second job and is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Walt, who never smoked a day in his life, decides to just chuck it all. He goes with his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) on a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) raid of a meth house and all those stacks of money make him snap. He finds a partner, an old high school student of his named Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and strong-arms him into the meth business with him. Walt easily makes the best grade of meth in the Southwest, probably in the U.S., but now they need to sell the stuff. They hook up with a vicious cartel rat named Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) to help them; unfortunately, Tuco is half-crazy (the rest of it is no doubt the effects of just snorting crystal every few minutes).

Tuco Salamanca
“And your life means what to me?”

In season 2, they get away from Tuco and consider his uncle (Mark Margolis), confined to a wheelchair and only able to communicate by ringing a bell, to be out of the picture. Walt takes creative measures to explain his disappearance to Skylar, who has been giving Walt more and more grief about his unexplained absences. Jesse decides they need to just move their stuff on their own, making profit more slowly but at least they’ll not be menaced by crazy gangsters, yo. This isn’t enough cash for Walt, who is afraid he’ll be leaving this mortal coil soon. With the help of the world’s trashiest, flashiest lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), they hook up with another distributor. This man is seemingly the anti-Tuco, a man so low-key that at first Walt doesn’t even realize that he’s their contact: Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), a soft-spoken franchise restaurant magnate. Gus is the owner of Los Pollos Hermanos, a fast-food haven known for good chicken. Gus pretends to be a civic-minded soul and brings those cartoony huge checks and buckets of his finest wings to the DEA, but this is all just a front. This man is a huge meth distributor, possibly owned by an even bigger fish in a bigger pond, and he likes Walt’s product very much. He’s hesitant about Jesse, who enjoys a bit of his own product (and stronger stuff) too frequently for Gus’s liking, but Walt convinces him to try one deal. It goes well, but not only does Skyler realize that Walt’s been lying all along and leave him, there’s a problem with Jesse. His junkie girlfriend O.D.s and dies, and Jesse falls apart. So does Jane’s dad; there’s still a lot of debate over the finale (which I thought was great).

Season 3 starts with a despondent Walt, trying to make sense of things since Skyler left him. Walt wants out of the life, but Gus makes him an offer he can’t refuse: three million dollars, to cook for a short span of time in a clean superlab hidden snugly under a laundry, which, like the chicken restaurant, is owned by a mysterious German concern known as Madrigal Electromotive GmbH. The only string Gus attaches initially is that Walt won’t be cooking with Jesse — he’ll be cooking with Gale Boetticher. We see more development of grumpy old Hector, or Tio Salamanca, and the kind of man he was before he was confined to his wheelchair. Gus pretends to go along with the uneasy alliance with the remainder of the cartel, but is just biding his time until he can completely take over.

Hector Salamanca
Fries are done.

Jesse almost instinctively dislikes Gus as much as Gus has no use for him, and when he sees some of Gus’s goons using a kid to drop off meth to customers, loses it. He tries to poison the goons but Gus makes him make peace, saying children will never, ever be used in his chain again. The goons murder the child, drawing Jesse out and after them. Jesse is prepared to gun them down in the street like the dogs they are, until Walt roars up in his Aztec, running one of them over and shooting the other one. Jesse goes into hiding, coming out long enough to kill Gale to force Gus into keeping Walt, the only one who makes premium meth and doesn’t use stuff like drain cleaner.

Once season four starts, it’s on. It’s pretty much a cat-and-mouse between Gus and Walt, with Gus working to drive a wedge between Jesse and Walt. We know that Gus will throw Jesse away like a used Kleenex® once he’s served his purpose, but Jesse, possibly feeling competent for the first time in his life, doesn’t see this: he thinks maybe Gus isn’t such a bad guy after all. Walt makes a completely morally empty move that brings Jesse back to his side, and they work together to kill Gus once and for all. When that fails Walt recruits an enemy that hates Gus more than they do: Hector. Hector, family all dead, alone in a home for the elderly, agrees to pretend to talk to the DEA to bait Gus, then lets Walt strap a bomb to his wheelchair. Gus falls for it, and in one of the most dramatic deaths, lumbers from Hector’s room, walks a few steps while straightening his tie, then falls down, face half gone.

Gustavo Fring
Please, allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste.

The writing is amazing: you can’t help but chafe for the next season to start. At the same time, even though every season I’m parked in front of my TV on Sunday nights, nothing about this life looks remotely appealing.

Bravo, Mr. Gilligan.


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